'Fame and Friendship. Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust': 'A Forest of Eyeless Busts', or is it?

‘But it will be a forest of eyeless busts’, was how the late John Physick, then Deputy Director of the V&A greeted a proposal in the early 1980s that Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum might collaborate in an exhibition of mid-eighteenth century sculpture. According to an internal memo, Roy Strong thought the V&A could do it better itself. BCMAG went ahead without the collaboration, but with the full support of the V&A’s then Departments of Sculpture and Prints and Drawings, to present Michael Rysbrack Sculptor, 1694-1770, one of the ground-breaking exhibitions of the era. Great sculptors are rarely if ever only portrait bust makers.

Now, some thirty years later, another brave attempt has been made to startling and great effect, in subjecting to forensic examination the image of one man, Alexander Pope (1688-1744), in ‘eyeless busts’ by one of the greatest portrait sculptors of the day, Louis François Roubiliac (1702-1762). The exhibition, itself a collaboration of considerable prestige, first at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven in the US and now at Waddesdon, is the sort that may be tentatively put on in a small, side gallery in a great museum or art gallery without much encouragement from support departments – marketing, press, events, and, dare I say it education or, as we must learn to call them, learning departments: Pope? The Pope? Busts? Eyeless busts? L.F. Roubiliac? Pronounced?

The first thing that strikes one on entering from the Stygean gloom of the anteroom, is how unlikely and how effective has been the display of busts against the wedding-cake-white background of the White Drawing Room. Who’d have thought it? White has more often than not been avoided by designers for the display of marbles, yet here, perforce, the nuances of white are played out: every fault and vein in the marble, every change of texture in the casts is captured and drawn to one’s attention by this means.

While the exhibition certainly fulfilled the first half of its title’s promise, so many busts of one man, the second half of the title was not so clearly articulated. Pope’s friendships were better explored in the conference, and Malcolm Baker has written persuasively elsewhere on the particular friendship between Pope and Lord Mansfield (Sculpture Journal). A vox pop at the door suggested that those who came specially, already converts, were delighted and enthused by it. However, many of the day’s visitors to the house and grounds took it in in the long series of rooms, but were not particularly informed by it. I overheard a strong-minded woman from Bristol saying that was not how she saw Isaac Newton (I tend to agree with her), while a well-informed other opined that the exhibition was a good example of enlightened patronage. Most, however, went round in silence, and exited without a muscle registering. 

This, I would suggest, was the result of there being only two introductory panels, and those of such dense verbiage, and placed in such awkward corners as to lose a reader half way through the first sentence, or give him or her rictus. Captions that gave only the briefest of curatorial information are a modish fashion spear-headed by Lucian Freud in his retrospective at Tate Britain, in the interests of looking at the work and not reading and passing on by. It may work in galleries of contemporary art, but does not in such an information-based exhibition. Even the best informed of audiences might wonder at the reasons behind choosing some of the cased objects, and want to know more. True, the chic grey abstract of the publication – gratis to all, and the larger print-copies on the bench – might help, but are only to hand once the first more difficult room has been traversed. And oh for a bench or two from which to contemplate, absorb and make the necessary connections. The only seating had a ‘please do not sit on this bench’ notice, so beloved of careful custodians.

The catalogue is superbly illustrated: images leap off the page, something very difficult to achieve in the photography of portrait busts in particular. From a pedantic point of view it plays safe with dates to such an extent, liberally deploying ‘circa’, in at least one case to an entire decade, as to render possible dates almost meaningless. This could have been tightened up to greater use and understanding. The cataloguing practice as applied to books has denied George Vertue his important, this reviewer would say essential, role in the dissemination of images of British ‘worthies’, and the creation of their fame. That the entries for the 1715 edition of the Iliad and the 1717 Works (cat. nos 10, 12) makes no mention of either frontispiece – illustrated – as being designed and engraved by Vertue, is a misfortune little short of careless.

It was pointed out to this reviewer that Roubiliac’s busts appear to be less than life-size, something that becomes very apparent when they are brought together. Is this an early eighteenth century French characteristic? The Flemish custom was always life-size, and so it became in France later in the century as Grands Hommes emerge, something Malcolm Baker potentially alludes to in his entry on Pigalle’s bust of Diderot (cat. no.20). It has been accepted that Roubiliac’s representations of Pope are the most expressive of eighteenth century busts, not least because his are rarely ‘eyeless’, for the iris and pupil are most often deeply incised. Bringing them together has allowed the observation that in Pope’s case the sense of a damaged body and known physical pain are described by the sculptor in the taught rope-like musculature on the proper right of each and every head, a tension exaggerated by long years of Pope keeping his head up, alert and outward looking against the opposite tendency of the incurable Pott’s Disease. 

The Conference held in the Power House at Waddesdon on 12 July was well populated by a fair mix of interests, international, specific and general, and concentrated hardly at all on the subject of the exhibition – the fixing of Pope’s image – but mostly on Pope himself. It provided a fascinating and rich contextual background most particularly in relation to France, for the raison d’etre of the busts themselves, and was very salutary for the cross-disciplinary exchanges it occasioned. It might have been useful to have had contributions from a conservator or an applied art historian on the questions surrounding the popular dissemination of images in plaster and earthenware. The British Museum’s plaster (cat.no.33), purchased directly from the sculptor’s estate, may be a vital link in the transition from terracotta studio models, as was the Flemish practice at the beginning of the eighteenth century, which set a vogue for terracotta busts. It would lead to the ubiquity of plaster studio models in the nineteenth century, which, as in the case of the Chantrey Bequest (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), are the nearest thing to an a mano model by the sculptor. Roubiliac, I suggest, introduced the French practice of moulage, thereby cutting out the long and fraught process of drying and firing terracottas. The example here may be a cast taken subsequently by Roubiliac’s assistant Nicholas Read, for it is very bland in detail, but will nevertheless have been taken from a plaster that was by then the nearest thing to the original terracotta, a studio model in itself. It may even be that original model. 

The exhibition is less a forest, more an arboretum of rare and interesting trees, to be examined in Linnaean fashion. With just under a month to go until it ends, get to see it and at the same time enjoy the autumnal Arcadia that is Waddesdon. The most touching image of Pope? The small profile etching by Jonathan Richardson. First published in 1737, but much, much earlier, for surely it depicts a man in his early 20s not mid-to-late 40s. And the finest eyeless bust in the room? Undoubtedly Nollekens’s Lord Mansfield.

Main image: Installation view of the exhibition, ‘Fame and Friendship. Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust’, White Drawing Room, Waddesdon Manor, The National Trust

Fame and Friendship. Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust’
Exhibition: Waddesdon Manor, National Trust 
18 June – 26 October 2014

Catalogue: Malcolm Baker, ‘Fame and Friendship. Pope, Roubiliac and the Portrait Bust’, Rothschild Collections, Waddesdon Manor, National Trust, 2014

Aurora Corio